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The Magic of Cross-Country

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"Have you guys finally decided what you want for Christmas?" I asked 12-year-old Raymond as he burst through the door after building a giant snowman in our backyard. Norman, Gerry and Brian, his three younger brothers, came trailing behind..

"Have you guys finally decided what you want for Christmas?" I asked 12-year-old Raymond as he burst through the door after building a giant snowman in our backyard. Norman, Gerry and Brian, his three younger brothers, came trailing behind. Ray made a face as he shrugged out of his parka. "I can't think of anything, Dad," he answered glumly. "All I know is that there will be no skiing for us this year. There's not a ski hill in sight!"

Ray was only voicing what was on the minds of all four of our young sons. Five months earlier, we had moved from Prince George, in northern BC and close to several ski mountains, all the way to Sudbury and the flatland of Northern Ontario. All enthusiastic downhill skiers even five-year old Brian our boys were now convinced their skiing days were over.

That's why, after supper, I decided it was time for shock treatment. "What would you say if we got the whole family outfitted with new skis! Cross-country skis, that is," I said. "It'll wipe out our budget, so that would then be our Christmas presents." I walked over to the picture window and pointed at the driveway, which we had finished shovelling free of snow only this afternoon. "There's no shortage of the white stuff here," I plowed on. "And the manager of the sporting goods store told me that they have some great cross-country trails laid out not far from town."

As if on cue, Ruth came into the living room with a tray of freshly baked gingerbread cookies. "Well, I for one am willing to give cross-country skiing a try," she said brightly, starting the ball rolling as she passed out the cookies. "What do you say, boys?"

Even with his mouth full, Norman, our 11-year-old, managed to demonstrate his total lack of enthusiasm. Throwing up his arms, he challenged, "Mom, you mean you want us to run around on those funny-looking skinny skis?" He had been a member of the junior downhill racers in Prince George, and he didn't want us to forget that.

So I tried again: "They've laid out a cross-country trail system right behind the college. And then there's Laurentian Lake, where the summer hiking network makes ideal ski trails." But the only one who seemed to be willing to give my suggestion a try was Brian, our youngest. His brothers looked at each other with that "Now let's see what Dad's come up with this time!" expression.

But in the end, they agreed to give it a try. We began our shopping trips to sporting goods and department stores to get the family fitted out for cross-country gear. Cross-country skiing is far less expensive than its alpine cousin, not only because you don't have to buy lift tickets, but also because cross-country equipment costs only a fraction of the heavier alpine gear. The purchases did break the Christmas budget, but somehow I didn't mind.

So it happened that Christmas Day saw our whole family on a snowed-in golf course, where ski instructor Karl, who had 25 years of cross-country experience, did his best to make us familiar with our new skis and teach us the cross-country system of gliding over the snow. And while even the best-groomed cross-country trails don't guarantee spill-free skiing, we did get a healthy taste of what our new, narrow skis were all about, even if our ankles did tend to feel a bit wobbly in the evening.

While cross-country skiing is a relative newcomer to North America, it dates back thousands of years in Norway. However, since the '50s, this super-healthy winter activity has experienced a surge in popularity on this side of the Atlantic, partly because of our accent on exercising for better health and longevity. As practised today, cross-country skiing has two major branches, racing and touring. Touring includes any ski "wandering" into the countryside, whether for a couple of hours, a whole day or camping out for several nights. It's a joy to discover winter's virgin territory, on your own or in congenial company.

Still, for a while there I wasn't sure how my sons were really feeling about this "new" kind of skiing. Until one Sunday in early February, when we decided to go adventuring along one of the snowed-in summer trails on the far side of frozen Laurentian Lake. The gentle winter sun was out in force, and snow conditions were close to perfect. No amount of words could convey the way I felt as we were making our silent way through this winter wonderland. Making up the rear of our group, I felt much of life's complexities slipping away, and my arms and legs seemed to be moving on an accord all of their own. That is until Ray, who held the lead, lifted one of his ski poles and motioned us to come to a stop. But quietly!

Near the centre of a sunlit clearing, less than 20 feet away and nibbling at one of the snow-covered thickets, stood a doe with her half-grown fawn pressed close beside her. Any other time of year the deer would have heard us approach. But the wind was in our favour, and the thick snow had allowed us to approach almost soundlessly. We watched this magical scene as if mesmerized.

I don't know whether we remained there for seconds or minutes. But the silence was finally broken when one of us knocked a pole against his skis. The deer turned her head, then swung around and, with her fawn, disappeared in the forest so ghost-like that it was as if they'd never been there in the first place.

"Next time I'll bring my camera," vowed Norman. As we continued on our trek, I could tell from their alert, red-cheeked faces that I was well on my way to making cross-country "converts" out of my hot-shot downhillers. But then, ski touring tends to do that to you!

One of the real glories of cross-country skiing is that there are no age limitations. The oldest skier I've had the pleasure chatting with was a spry "elderly" man of 91. Friends have encountered skiers who were older still. But then they were simply following in the footsteps of "Jackrabbit Johannsen," the grand old man of cross-country skiing who pioneered the sport in North America. On skis since the age of two in his native Norway, he inspired thousands with his vitality and love of nature. To him, ski touring was the only winter sport worth considering. And he pursued it well past his 100th birthday!

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